Theory of Change: Back to Basics

In every industry, at any particular moment in time there are buzzwords and trending topics. Back when I entered the field of development there were talks of ‘global warming’. However, this shifted to the less alarming term of ‘climate change’. Lest I forget, ‘sustainable development’ were another set of words that would be bounced around by the professional at the various conferences to show how savvy he or she was.

‘Theory of Change’ is no different. These words are now ubiquitous in the development sector for the last few years. Everyone seem to want a ‘Theory of Change’ for even the simplest and most straightforward of interventions.

So let’s go back to basics.

What is a Theory of Change?

As the name suggests, a ToC is the thinking behind how a particular intervention will bring about results. It is the organisation’s critical assumptions on how their interventions bring about change (Valters, 2015).

How does one develop a ToC?

The process for developing a ToC usually starts with asking the question 'What is our long term goal or outcome?' For example, the long term goal could be to protect a nation's children. Once this goal has been identified, the next consideration is: “What conditions must be in place for us to reach the goal?' For example, in order to protect the nation's children, children have to know their rights and the government has to also recognise these rights and put policies in place.

These necessary conditions (educating children on their rights and lobby and advocacy with policy-makers) would then be shown as outcomes on the Theory of Change pathway, underneath the long-term outcome (protecting the nation's children).

Diagram showing the design of a ToC (reproduced from Clarke and Anderson, 2004).

From the above table you will see that the preconditions (otherwise known as 'outcomes') leads to the achievement of the long-term outcome. Early outcomes must be in place for intermediate outcomes to be achieved; intermediate outcomes must be in place for the next set of outcomes to be achieved; and so on. To use our example from earlier, sensitisation and lobbying have to take place before childrens' awareness levels are increased, who in turn demand that their voice be heard and policy-makers have to be pressured before they take action.

Not only does the ToC show the outcomes/preconditions, it also outlines the causal linkages in an intervention between the shorter-term, intermediate, and longer-term outcomes. The identified changes are mapped –as the “outcomes pathway” – showing each outcome in logical relationship to all the others, as well as chronological flow.

Ideally, every outcome/precondition should be accompanied by at least one indicator to measure success.

Additionally, some ToC outcome pathways include an 'accountability ceiling'. This is often represented by a dashed line drawn across the pathway that separates outcomes the organisation will monitor and claim credit for attaining, from the higher-order outcomes that are beyond its power to achieve -For example, 'a world where all children are safe and protected' is outside the direct control of the programme. This higher order outcome would be placed above the dashed line.

Some organisations instead of a dashed line, depict the level of control on the ToC by using different spheres; 'sphere of control', 'sphere of influence' and 'sphere of interest'.

What are the different components of the ToC?

A ToC usually consists of a diagrammatic representation and a narrative. The ToC diagram is flexible and does not have a particular format – it could include cyclical processes, feedback loops, one box could lead to multiple other boxes, different shapes could be used etc.

See examples of actual Theories of Change below (legible versions of the charts may be found here).

The above diagram is the Theory of Change for Ecosystems Services and Poverty Alleviation Research Programme - According to the Theory of Change, ESPA’s research will improve the lives of poor people in developing countries by filling knowledge gaps that currently limit the way that ecosystem services contribute to the alleviation of poverty.

DFID Programme Theory of Change: Roads in East DRC is shown above. The theory of change is based on the fundamental logic that a road can provide access to markets as well as allow for the provision of security, which in turn can lead to improved incomes and security for the population of North and South Kivu.

Theory of Change for The African Women in Agricultural Research and Development - AWARD AWARD is a professional development program that strengthens the research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science, empowering them to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

More examples of actual Theories of Change may be viewed from a DFID publication found here and also from the "Green Livelihoods Alliance'. There are several tips to enhance the visualisation of the ToC. You may read on this in my other blog post.

When is a ToC useful?

ToCs are most useful for understanding and assessing impact in complex programmes and hard to measure areas such as governance, capacity strengthening and institutional development. That is, if your intervention involves a linear, straightforward process to bring about the change you seek, then you probably don’t need to develop a ToC. For example, some organisations develop a ToC for routine activities like recruiting staff.

My message is simple. Before jumping on the ‘ToC bandwagon’, learn more and assess if it is really necessary to have one.

For more detailed information on the history and the evolution of the Theory of Change, please see


Clark and Anderson (2004) Theories of Change and Logic Models: Telling Them Apart

Valters, Craig (2015), Theories of Change Time for a radical approach to learning in development. Overseas Development Institute

Other articles on the Theory of Change that may be of interest to you.

Tips to Enhance ToCs

Theories of Change: 3 Common Pitfalls

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